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July 9, 2011

'Smart' technology doesn't make us any smarter


Daily Star

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So I'm on my fancy-schmancy "smart phone" the other day, talking to my older brother, Michael.

"Y'know," I say, "I'm not sure I'm all that comfortable having a telephone smarter than I am."

"Sam," he says, "a string between two paper cups is smarter than you are."

I don't speak to my brother anymore.

Truth be known, the only reasons I'm toting this genius phone around is because my publisher insists upon it (presumably so I'm always available to listen to his thoughtful suggestions) ... and the newspaper pays for it.

It's quite the gadget, and I'm sure I haven't even scratched the surface of its wondrous abilities.

It can receive and send emails, give me access to the Internet, calculate how much I should tip a waitress, provide me weather forecasts, take photos and videos, tell me what time it is, and for all I know, make popcorn.

You would think that some satellite orbiting our planet has far better things to do than have stuff from my cell phone bouncing off of it all the time.

I really don't need all the bells and whistles. My needs are simple. I mean, I'm thrilled just to be able to call my wife from a supermarket and ask if we need eggs.

I don't know about you, but all the ads on TV for this gizmo or that one _ without which life is just not worth living _ make me want to say: "What's the use?" and buy a shawl and rocking chair.

Oh, the excruciating competitive disadvantage I shall be suffering if I don't have latest permutation of the iPad or iMac or Droid doohickey.

Who am I, George Jetson?

I am apparently the only person in America who is not on Facebook. I don't tweet on Twitter, and when I read a book, I want to actually turn paper pages rather than look at some computer device.

So is there anything that a Luddite who believes technology reached its apex with the invention of the TV remote control can contribute to today's society?

I'd like to think there is.

Perhaps there is something beneficial about bearing witness to a time when kids played stickball in the street instead of "Resident Evil" survivor horror games all alone in their rooms.

Maybe there is some value in recalling a time when people in my industry spent more time and effort making sure they got the story right rather than being first to post something they hope is right on a website.

Not that the urge to be first is anything new. Many years ago I had an interview with one of the New York City tabloids in which I was informed: "We don't want to get beat on any rumors. It's not important if it turns out to be true or not, we just want to be the first one out with the rumor."

It would seem that philosophy may still exist with newspapers' tabloid bottom-feeders. The New York Post is being sued for libel by the hotel maid who accused former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn of sexual assault.

The Post called her a hooker. She says she isn't. Prosecutors and police say they have found no evidence that she has been a prostitute.

Almost any other newspaper would be far more careful, but the time when responsible people in newsrooms could serve as gatekeepers separating real news from fake news, fact from rumor, has sadly come to an end _ mostly because of computers.

With today's social media, any loser with a laptop can spew information that may or may not be true, reveal personal things about anybody that are nobody's business, and generally end any reasonable expectation folks should have of privacy.

On a national level, this bile often works its way from a blog to the National Enquirers to the Drudge Reports to the New York tabloids to the cable networks that have agendas. Then, too many times, I've heard newspaper people say, "Well, the story was 'out there,' so we had to do something with it."

"Out there" is nowhere, but that isn't important anymore. The result is a far more coarse, more ignorant and more suspicious population of young people who are absolute whizzes on a computer but can't tell the difference between a supermarket tabloid and The New York Times.

I'm fighting a losing battle, of course. The future will see more and more gadgets, less and less time devoted to discerning evaluation ... and me, still trying to figure out how to work this fancy-schmancy cell phone.

Sam Pollak is the editor of The Daily Star. He can be reached at spollak@thedailystar.com or at (607) 432-1000, ext. 208.